When was the last time you heard about a wild animal attacking a human? And what animal was it? In terms of the numbers, it was likely a snake or a raccoon. More scarily, though, and what you probably remember is an animal like a shark, bear, or mountain lion (especially in my home country of the U.S.).
Attacks from megafauna are quite rare, but that does not stop them from filling our brains with fears and uncomfortable emotions. Unlike something like a snake or raccoon bite where we are not afraid of being eaten, larger animals can often inspire such visions. This makes these encounters all the more intimidating, no matter their rarity.
Back in February of 1985, Val Plumwood lived through one such experience. The philosopher survived and recounted her meeting with the crocodile that attacked her (in her essay, Being Prey). Plumwood later, years later, in fact, wrote about her encounter and expounded on what it meant to her. She pondered questions of death, life, consumption, and whether humans are really exceptional at all.
Encountering Another Kind
Kakadu National Park is a wilderness park in the Northern Territory of Australia. Aboriginal humans have inhabited the land for more than 65,000 years; they have managed the land ever since and recently have partnered with the Australian Government. Beyond the land’s people, the country land is home to over 2,000 plant species, a third of Australia's bird species, mounds of termites, and of course, crocodiles — approximately 10,000 of them!
On this land, which is about half the size of Switzerland, is where environmental philosopher and ecofeminist Val Plumwood had been staying. On that fateful day in February of 1985, the field academic had an overwhelming calling to travel onto the land’s waters seeking ecological splendor. Upon gathering her lunch and other necessities, Plumwood got her canoe. As she left, the park ranger warned her:
“You can play about on the backwaters,…but don’t go onto the main river channel. The current’s too swift, and if you get into trouble, there are the crocodiles. Lots of them along the river!”
She left out on her own. At first, the day was wonderful; Plumwood was surrounded by the sounds of flowing water hitting her canoe and the plethora of bird songs. She paddled among the beautiful water lilies in search of an Aboriginal rock art site. The philosopher had been traveling the swamp forever and was not finding the site, even with the help of the ranger’s sketched up map.
Then, she felt herself being watched.
Nothing was moving the water around so she did not think much of the feeling — although unfamiliar to her, it was a common one among naturalists. You are in the world, things and non-human persons are constantly sensing you, even before you notice them. It began to rain. She did not feel as if she should stop, so stubbornly she kept on her search route.
Through the rain, she had to routinely pull to the water’s edge to remove water from the small vessel. This worried the environmentalist because, although she was safe in the canoe, edges of water are where crocs usually took their prey. With that knowledge, she moved as quickly as possible.
Back on the water time and time again, she kept going. She noticed a stick that had appeared out of nowhere. Then the stick began to develop eyes. It was a crocodile! Plumwood writes:
“Although I was paddling to miss the crocodile, our paths were strangely convergent. I knew it would be close, but I was totally unprepared for the great blow when it struck the canoe. Again it struck, again and again, now from behind, shuddering the flimsy craft. As I paddled furiously, the blows continued. The unheard of was happening; the canoe was under attack! For the first time, it came to me fully that I was prey. I realized I had to get out of the canoe or risk being capsized.”
Thinking that it would be her best bet of escape, Plumwood paddled to the edge and launched her body towards the low branches of a paperbark tree. The croc followed her and “… its beautiful, flecked golden eyes looked straight into [hers]”. The philosopher yelled at the crocodile, and it only drew closer and closer; in one swift leap, it had bitten her between the legs and pulled her into the water, or as she describes it, “the suffocating wet darkness”
Plumwood tells us what happened next:
“Few of those who have experienced the crocodile’s death roll have lived to describe it. It is, essentially, an experience beyond words of total terror. The crocodile’s breathing and heart metabolism are not suited to prolonged struggle, so the roll is an intense burst of power designed to overcome the victim’s resistance quickly. The crocodile then holds the feebly struggling prey underwater until it drowns. The roll was a centrifuge of boiling blackness that lasted for an eternity, beyond endurance, but when I seemed all but finished, the rolling suddenly stopped. My feet touched bottom, my head broke the surface, and, coughing, I sucked at air, amazed to be alive.”
This happened over and over, three times, with a short split-second rest in between the second and third attempts on Plumwood’s life. After the third attack, she was able to muster enough strength and ingenuity to climb up the muddly, eroded water’s edge.
She had escaped the jaws of the croc, but not the relentless jaws of the wilderness. Alone in the park, miles from the ranger station, Plumwood was thinking about giving up. She made her way to the swamp’s edge in order to maximize her chance of survival should a search party come looking.
In her last sprint to the edge of the swamp, she was reduced to a lifeless crawl. In survivalist desperation, the environmentalist, “…struggled on, through driving rain, shouting for mercy from the sky, apologizing to the angry crocodile, repenting to this place for [her] intrusion.”
The search party did eventually come and she was transported 13 hours to the nearest hospital. Although the crocodile tried their best to take the ecofeminist as food, Plumwood made an almost complete recovery, avoiding infection, amputation, and death. Her mind — and existence — was forever changed though.
Destroying the Narrative Self
In her rush of pain, blood, and a near-death experience, Plumwood began to think fragmented thoughts about herself as a self that continues through time. She tells us that:
“Our final thoughts during near-death experiences can tell us much about our frameworks of subjectivity. A framework capable of sustaining action and purpose must, I think, view the world “from the inside,” structured to sustain the concept of a continuing, narrative self; we remake the world in that way as our own, investing it with meaning, reconceiving it as sane, survivable, amenable to hope and resolution.”
What she is getting at is a really loaded philosophical concept of the enduring self. Are we the types of things that exist through time and space or is that an illusion? Are we in fact our bodies only, or is there a transcendent part of us? Is that part a soul?
Physicalists, those who believe that there is only matter, might have a tough time answering for this problem. We shed cells constantly; over time, who I am physically has literally changed to a different bundle of cells clumped together. We move through various stages of life — babies, teens, adults, older adults, etc. — but maintain a sense that we have been there the entire time.
Plumwood writes that we are guilty of viewing a world from within. The world is a projection that we create to reinforce our sense of narrative self that endures. Living, this way, is remaking the environment in our own image. We are the world, not of it. She remarks:
“The lack of fit between this subject-centered version and reality comes into play in extreme moments. In its final, frantic attempts to protect itself from the knowledge that threatens the narrative framework, the mind can instantaneously fabricate terminal doubt of extravagant proportions: This is not really happening. This is a nightmare from which I will soon awake. This desperate delusion split apart as I hit the water. In that flash, I glimpsed the world for the first time “from the outside,” as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizable bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death.”
After being confronted with the crocodile's power and raw energy, Val ceased to exist. There was no self that endured this situation. It was only a crocodile trying to get its next meal. She became a mental spectator watching this all happen.
Confronting the Master Narrative
Val Plumwood waited quite a while before she released any type of statement about the whole ordeal. This was partly because she did not want to put the crocodiles in any type of danger of humans seeking revenge. Another worry of hers was that she did not yet know what to make of the “attack.”
No matter her wishes, the media ran with the story. She remembers how her story, like what so commonly happens to indigenous peoples’ stories, was repackaged for sensation. In her case, it was to track masculine appropriation and the monster myth/master narrative. Plumwood writes:
“The imposition of the master narrative occurred in several ways: in the exaggeration of the crocodile’s size, in portraying the encounter as a heroic wrestling match, and especially in its sexualization. The events seemed to provide irresistible material for the pornographic imagination, which encouraged male identification with the crocodile and interpretation of the attack as sadistic rape. Although I had survived in part because of my active struggle and bush experience, one of the major meanings imposed on my story was that the bush was no place for a woman.”
She remarks that she was watered down to a damsel in distress while the crocodile was represented as masculine energy and domination. Both of these were incorrect in her view of what she experienced. In an attempt to combat these bad portrayals, she had to tell her story over and over. Retelling the experience, she says, was actually quite therapeutic as if with each retelling the pain and memory grew less sharp.
Plumwood tells us that cultures vary in how they pass on stories but they are ultimately for a purpose of canonizing our life past the biological death. She says (as an outsider I might add) that Austialian Aboriginal people have a sophisticated story network that is vastly different than hers, or the West (i.e. white, descendants of colonizers, etc.). The philosopher explains:
“Aboriginal thinking about death sees animals, plants, and humans sharing a common life force. Their cultural stories often express continuity and fluidity between humans and other life that enables a degree of transcendence of the individual’s death. In Western thinking, in contrast, the human is set apart from nature as radically other. Religions like Christianity must then seek narrative continuity for the individual in the idea of an authentic self that belongs to an imperishable realm above the lower sphere of nature and animal life. The eternal soul is the real, enduring, and identifying part of the human self, while the body is animal and corrupting. But transcending death this way exacts a great price; it treats the earth as a lower, fallen realm, true human identity as outside nature, and it provides narrative continuity for the individual only in isolation from the cultural and ecological community and in opposition to a person’s perishable body.”
Western notions of life revolve around self and eschew the idea of biology and the continuance of shared energy is all there is. This is why we also have a problem with becoming prey.
Part of the Feast
Even the most radically ecological human groups have a tough time grappling with the idea of humans being within the food chain, rather than on top of it. Val Plumwood writes:
“This denial that we ourselves are food for others is reflected in many aspects of our death and burial practices. The strong coffin, conventionally buried well below the level of soil fauna activity, and the slab over the grave to prevent any other thing from digging us up, keeps the Western human body from becoming food for other species. Horror movies and stories also reflect this deep-seated dread of becoming food for other forms of life: Horror is the wormy corpse, vampires sucking blood, and alien monsters eating humans. Horror and outrage usually greet stories of other species eating humans. Even being nibbled by leeches, sandflies, and mosquitoes can stir various levels of hysteria.”
This observation is odd too. The same notion that says we are more than our body — we are mainly our soul and mind — rigidly ritualizes the body. If we are not our bodies, then it should not really matter if the worms say grace over our flesh. With this in mind, the philosopher says:
“The idea of human prey threatens the dualistic vision of human mastery in which we humans manipulate nature from outside, as predators but never prey. We may daily consume other animals by the billions, but we ourselves cannot be food for worms and certainly not meat for crocodiles. This is one reason why we now treat so inhumanely the animals we make our food, for we cannot imagine ourselves similarly positioned as food. We act as if we live in a separate realm of culture in which we are never food, while other animals inhabit a different world of nature in which they are no more than food, and their lives can be utterly distorted in the service of this end.”
Humans are so unable to envision themselves as food that they can compartmentalized animals as wholly different from themselves. Us and they are of completely different realms. Plumwood was directly confronted with this as she became prey. “Thus the story of the crocodile encounter now has, for me,” says the environmentalist, “a significance quite the opposite of that conveyed in the master/monster narrative. It is a humbling and cautionary tale about our relationship with the earth, about the need to acknowledge our own animality and ecological vulnerability.”
Realizing that we are ourselves prey animals does not make us useless or without any type of meaning. It is just so easy to think that as we place that burden of being meaningless on the other animals. As Plumwood says: “We are edible, but we are also much more than edible.”
Unpacking Our Narrative Self
Reading this story and presenting its major implications in this article was a struggle. I put it off for days as I knew that it would force me to confront some deeply (and strangely) held beliefs about myself.
If we accept that humans are always predators, it follows that we might also think that many animals are inevitably prey. When we confront this idea, like in the event of an animal attack, we realize that to many animals we are as good a lunch as anything else. Become prey forces us out of the world that we have unknowingly built from the inside out into the real one. In this exercise, we become spectators to our own prejudice and destruction. Most alarmingly, I think, we are also faced with the fact that either the other animals matter like we do, or none of them matter cosmically (including humans).
I would like to think that all life forms matter. I would like to think that I could potentially be prey — hopefully for the worms after my death! Returning yourself to the earth is really scary but also, strangely enough, cosmically affirming. We humans are of this world, not our own.
The challenge is to reconcile this idea with our narrative selves. We must incorporate the “big picture” as our own if we are better to understand what is actually going on here and now. This is an especially urgent challenge for us in the age of climate change. “Being Prey” might be understood as a radical form of empathy that forces us to consider what the other animals need and require if they are to survive this world that we have spun out of control.